With more than 140 billion single-use bottles produced in the United States each year, members of the civic group Bag It Berea are looking for different ways to reduce plastic waste in Madison County.
According to group co-founder Nina Verin, Bag It Berea began organically as a grassroots movement after showing the movie "Bag It" about reducing waste at the Berea College Forest Outreach Center.
"The people in the audience really wanted to keep the conversation going, and so we all met again at the Madison County Public Library, where 36 people showed up who were interested in learning ways to reduce plastic," Verin said.
After a year and a half of offering different workshops on various topics that will help people move toward zero waste, the group caught wind of the EcoBrick Exchange, an environment awareness enterprise that facilitates the construction of structures using non-recyclable plastic waste.
Simply put, community members find single-use plastic bottles to fill with non-compostable plastic that are later used to build benches or buildings in underprivileged communities.
"Along the way, we found out about EcoBricks, and it has taken on a life on its own," she said. "There's an excitement in the community about this and what the initiative can offer our community."
As of now, community members' EcoBricks are being stored at the outreach center, but Verin and the group's other founder, Diane Gammon, are looking for additional infrastructure to house the reused bottles.
"We are picking them up everywhere, we have garages full of bottles," she laughed.
The forest outreach labor students have been working closely on the project, designing ways to utilize the EcoBricks by experimenting with framework and incorporating the bricks into an architectural design.
Wendy Warren, the director of the outreach center, reported they have three full tubs of water bottles and said they hope to construct benches placed throughout the Pinnacles hiking trails, to further their effort to leave no trace.
"We are making and collecting EcoBricks, hoping to build a bench or artwork," Warren said. "There are all kinds of possibilities. It is just a matter of thinking of a design. The students are taking the lead on this, which I love having happen at the center."
Already, one student has made a transportable planter from the plastic bricks as a demonstration for what they can be used for.
"Schools have been made, hospitals and preschools -- there are any number of possibilities with EcoBricks," Verin said. "It's great, there is a really interesting and limitless potential. It's not a panacea and does not offer a solvent to the issue, but it gives a sense that people are helping."
The Berea College Forest Outreach Center will host a founding member of the South African EcoBrick Exchange, Dr. Kinga Mnich, Thursday evening for a presentation on EcoBricks and how they can be used architecturally to create large structures.
"Her speaking to Berea will show us a global framework that we can then adapt to Berea, and she will be able to tell us some of the struggles and successes that they have had through this program," Verin said.
She explained that with all the woes and concerns with recycling and what centers will and won't collect, the EcoBrick project can be done by people of any age and gives them the feeling they are making an environmental impact.
"Four year olds take to it, all the way to 90 year olds. It gives an amazing sense that you are doing something, and it's amazing how much can fit in that plastic bottle," she said.
Bag It Berea hopes to set up a "swap shop," where people can bring filled bottles in exchange for canned food, clothing or toys. Verin said an opportunity like this would help benefit the homeless population, empowering them to do something useful as well as providing constant motivation to keep bringing in trash.
"This is a creative solution for activating people. Everywhere we turn, people are interested in it and willing to start making EcoBricks and there is a lot of interest and excitement about it," Verin said.
In teaching a workshop about the bricks to a large group of 7- to 9-year-old kids, Verin thought that her message wasn't being perceived until a young boy named Eli came up to her the next day in town with not only five completed EcoBricks of his own, but also a petition asking the Berea EcoVillage to make 100 EcoBricks of its own.
"You just don't know who will be sparked by it, and it is so accessible that anyone can do it," she said.
The co-founder explained the group prefers plastic be collected in water bottle or sports drink bottle size for the purpose of uniformity while the Berea group learns the process of building with the bricks.
Plastic that goes in the bottle needs to be clean and dry, and no paper, glass or biodegradable items should not be mixed in.
People interested in turning in an EcoBrick can do so by contacting Bag It Berea at email@example.com or visit its Facebook page.
Dr. Kinga Mnich will give her presentation 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday at the Berea Forestry Outreach Center, 2047 Big Hill Road, Berea.